Working towards Irish Unity




Irish government have lost all authority on refugee crisis

It takes something major to change the atmosphere in a country, once famous for its céad míle fáilte hospitality to one where there is widespread hostility to the arrival of some migrants. This has happened in Ireland where nobody doubts but that immigration is now in the words of former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “a top-tier” issue.

The Republic has seen a major surge in legal migration, with net inward numbers going from just over 21,000 in 2021, to 51,700 in 2022 and 77,600 in 2023. In UK terms that would be a net immigration figure of well over 1 million, on a population pro rata basis. The UK recorded a net immigration figure of 672,000 in 2023. However, this flow into the Irish Republic has not caused the recent upheavals but the controversy relates to those claiming temporary international protection.

In many ways this issue has crept up on the Irish Government. It is clear that it made a number of policy decisions without fully thinking them through. The Irish State offered very generous arrangements for Ukrainians which resulted in 104,400 arriving in Ireland seeking temporary asylum.  Over one third were secondary refugees, having originally registered in another European country. The total is an extra-ordinary figure, given that there was no large group of Ukrainians living in Ireland before the war. The figure is numerically larger than the number accommodated in France and several large European countries.

There simply was not the infrastructure or services available for this number of people arriving in the Republic.  In addition, there has been a large spike in international migrants claiming asylum.. The system has become overloaded, and the State has been unable to provide accommodation for these arrivals and simply given them tents. This in turn created “tented villages” on urban streets and provoked a backlash among residents.  Irish people are ashamed at the sight of hundreds of migrants having to live in such conditions. They are annoyed that the authorities have let the crisis develop.

The perception is that the Government does not know what to do with the situation.  The cringe inducing performance by the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee at a Parliamentary Committee recently destroyed any remaining confidence that the Government has the capacity to deal with the problem. At that meeting it emerged that of the 7,300 people who have been refused international protection status in Ireland since the beginning of 2023, fewer than 100 had been deported. She also acknowledged of the 188 deportation decisions agreed with other countries by her department in 2023, only three people had been returned. There is incomprehension how this situation could have arisen.  Clearly the system is not working.

Widespread demonstrations began to spring up all over the State against the imposition of refugee centres, especially in small rural towns.  Ordinary people objected to not being consulted about large numbers arriving in their areas, especially when the only local hotel had been commandeered for that purpose. They also feared local services would not be able to cope with the influx. As reaction grew to the perceived incompetence of the Government, the authorities simply blamed what they called the “Far Right”.

Against that background, the Minister for Justice made the explosive claim that over 80% of those seeking asylum in the Republic had come across the land border in Ireland from the North. It later transpired that she had no actual figures to back up her claim, the 80% referred to the number turning up at the Department of Justice’s offices and police stations, claiming asylum without any papers. Refugee organisations dispute the claim, stating that some refugees are reluctant to make an application at the point of entry, airports and ports, and instead wait until they are safely inside the State to begin their claim.  However, it is probable that the cross-border route is the one chosen by a significant number.  First Minister in the North, Michelle O’Neill, stated that the Dublin authorities had not been in touch with the devolved administration in Belfast on the issue, extraordinary if true.

Whatever the efficacy of the 80% claim, it ignited huge international interest.  It represented a golden opportunity for the British Conservative Government to claim that its Rwanda policy was working, despite the fact that the numbers crossing the English Channel have been rising rather than reducing. 

In the current dispute, there is a great temptation for both the British and Irish Governments to appeal to their domestic audiences.  It is far easier for Helen McEntee to blame it all on the British Government, the Rwanda Act, and Brexit rather than policy and administrative failings at home.

The snub by Home Secretary, James Cleverly,  of McEntee by cancelling a bilateral meeting at the last minute on a “diary matter”,  is a regressive development. With an open border between jurisdictions within the Common Travel Area, there is a need for the closest cooperation, rather than megaphone diplomacy.  However, that is unlikely to occur with both Governments facing difficult general elections shortly. 

Ray Bassett is a former Irish diplomat. He was intimately involved in preparing the groundwork for negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement.